The Height of Native American HistoryThe Indian Temple Mound & Museum links a late-rehistoric culture to present-day Fort Walton Beach

By Jason Dehart

Twelve hundred years ago, there was no city of Fort Walton Beach. The area where it now stands, however, was inhabited by a late-prehistoric culture of mound-building Indians who disappeared with the arrival of the first Europeans.

Known only by their place in a long archeological timeline, these “Mississippi Era” peoples thrived throughout the southeastern, midwestern and eastern United States from approximately 800 A.D. to 1400 A.D. One of their colonies existed for a time on the Emerald Coast, and the lives of these early coastal dwellers are examined at the City of Fort Walton Beach Heritage Park and Cultural Center.

“The temple mound was the center of the village of Mississippians. This would have been essentially their political and religious center,” said Gail Meyer, the museum’s education coordinator. “The artifacts that are in the museum come from this village as well as from sites within a 40-mile radius.”

The temple mound was a flat-topped, four-sided pyramid from which the village chief lived and ruled.

“It was a chiefdom society. All the groups of people living here depended on the chief, who was in a central location, and he would provide organization,” Meyer said. “These people had an army, a welfare system; there were traders, markets – an urban environment.”

These tall, imposing pyramids were the unmistakable sign of the chief’s power, and he and his family would live in the wooden temple on top. As each chief died, a new chief would add a layer to the top of the mound and a new temple also would be built. Meyer said the Fort Walton mound had at least three stages and today stands 12 feet tall and measures 223 feet across the base. It’s the largest earthen mound built near saltwater, and Meyer said perhaps thousands of people lived in the immediate area around the mound.

In 1962, the Fort Walton Beach Indian Temple Mound & Museum opened as the first city-owned and operated museum in the state. The current museum was opened in 1972 and is located at 139 Miracle Strip Parkway Southeast, near the heart of the historic downtown. The museum holds a collection of some 6,000 artifacts made of stone, bone, clay and shell, and Meyer said it has one of the largest collections of Southeast ceramics in the United States.

But today, the site is home to more than the temple mounds. As a result, the name was changed to The City of Fort Walton Beach Heritage Park and Cultural Center. The Camp Walton Schoolhouse opened in 1912 and closed in 1936 but since 1976 has had a second life as an educational museum. The Garnier Post Office Museum also is from that era; it was open from 1918 to 1953 and was originally located in a town known today as Wright, Meyer said.

The Indian Temple Mound & Museum has two sets of hours. From August to May, it’s open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The schoolhouse and post office are open Monday through Saturday from noon to 4:30 p.m. During June and July, all buildings are open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monday through Saturday and from noon to 4:30 p.m. on Sunday.

Admission is $5 for adults ages 18-55. For visitors ages 55 and above, it’s $4.50 – which also is the fee for members of the military. Children ages 4-17 get in for $3, and young ones ages 3 and under are free. Group rates also are available.

Tours are self-guided, but a staff member always is around to answer questions, Meyer said.